WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama agreed Friday to postpone a high-profile trip to Asia, signaling his commitment to swift action on his signature health care bill as Democrats in Congress prepared for action next week and expanded the bill's scope to include a popular student aid initiative.
The president's change of travel plans, which will move his departure from Thursday to March 21, will enable him to remain active in pushing uneasy Democrats toward final approval of his signature domestic policy initiative.
But it underscored the possibility that Democrats might miss a self-imposed deadline that they hold the first of a series of three critical health care votes on Friday.
In a move that doubles the stakes for Obama, Democrats are now expecting to simultaneously advance another major White House priority — Obama's drive to overhaul the federal college student loan program and to increase spending for grants to low income college students.
Democratic leaders have tentatively decided to add the student aid overhaul to the health care package because it generates additional budget savings and circumvents a possible obstacle in the Senate as they deploy a legislative procedure known as "budget reconciliation" that precludes a filibuster.
Obama's proposed overhaul of federal student aid — which now provides loans both directly from the government and through private lenders who receive federal guarantees and interest subsidies — calls for eliminating bank subsidies and instead having all loans be made through the government.
Advocates of that approach say it would be more efficient and less expensive, and Obama has proposed channeling most of the savings into increasing Pell Grants, which help the neediest students pay tuition.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Obama plan would produce a net deficit reduction of about $29 billion over five years.
Private lenders have lobbied hard against the plan, arguing that it will cost jobs in their industry, give borrowers less responsive service and disrupt the delivery of financial aid in the transition. Most Republicans agree.
"It's a very bad idea," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We now have the government running banks, insurance companies, car companies, and they … want to take over the student loan business."
The proposal also has met resistance from some Democrats — including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Evan Bayh of Indiana — who represent states where student-loan processors and banks are big employers.